Time and Authenticity in Visions and Images of Abraham Joshua Heschel

[7 minute read]

“Can we have snack right now? When we get back to the classroom?”

“We usually have snack at 10:00 or 10:30am. It’s only 9:30am now. Don’t you think you’ll want it later?” I ask one of my students doubtfully, walking beside him as we head towards the seventh-grade classroom at Temple Concord. We have just come from T’fila – the communal thirty-minute prayer-time that begins weekly Sunday school.

“I’m hungry now! Can I have two snacks? One now, one later at 10:30am?” the student continues. Twelve-and-thirteen-year-olds have a fast metabolism.

“Maybe. We will see if there is enough…” I say, hoping that there will be enough snacks for those who want two. Sure enough, there is – most of the students don’t want an extra snack. I hand over the snack-sized bags of pretzels for the hungrier students and begin the class. We are talking about the Holocaust today.

As I ushered my students down the hallway of the religious school wing at Temple Concord, we passed the following poster:


Masters Series©2012, Paula Scher, Quote: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, West Springfield, MA.

Most days I walked by it unawares, busy with telling students not to run or going over the lesson plan for the day in my head. But it was always there, something that we looked forwards and upwards towards, metaphorically and literally.

The poster depicts a partial photograph of a man walking, with the quote “When I marched in Selma, I felt as though my feet were praying” offset to one side. The quote is by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaking about his involvement in, and experience with the famous Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a prolific writer and thinker, and an important figure to postwar American Judaism. Born in Poland to an important Hasidic family, he was able to escape the Holocaust by way of a visa program organized by Julian Morgenstern, the then-president of the Reform rabbinical college, the Hebrew Union College (for more information, see this link or Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner’s biography Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Information about this book here). Once in America, Heschel taught at the Hebrew Union College and later the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and wrote many influential works about Judaism and religion.

My dissertation projects seeks, in part, to understand how and why the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement is so important to contemporary American Jews. This poster, produced by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Voices and Visions projects, is part of a series of posters sold (and in some cases donated) to Jewish communal organizations internationally. Under the tab “Our Vision” on the Voices and Visions website, the site reads “Voices & Visions is about art, about powerful messages, about combining them into posters, about starting conversations, about continuing the Jewish journey” (see this link for more). This poster, created by Paula Scher, is therefore intended to help Jews to “continue their Jewish journey” by way of having transformational conversations and experiences reflecting on the artwork and quote in the poster. The site contains background information and a “conversation guide” for Jewish educators who want to incorporate the poster into a lesson plan (see this link for more). The poster, then, is supposed to not only be a testament to the memory of Heschel’s involvement in the civil rights movement, but is also intended to influence contemporary Jews to think about and reflect upon their Jewish identity in some way.


I started this blog post intending to do a visual reading of this poster. A wrench was thrown into my original plan when I realized I had never asked myself an obvious, foundational question about Scher’s graphic art. Does the poster actually use an image of Heschel at the march? Is that really Heschel on the poster? What does it mean if it is? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean if it is not?

The most well-known photo of Heschel at the march can be found at this link. In it, a white-haired and bearded Heschel stands between Ralph Bunche and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands in between Ralph Bunch and Ralph Albernathy (one person away from Heschel). Heschel’s right foot is in exactly the same position as the foot in the poster, albeit seen from another angle. However, in the historical photograph, Heschel is wearing a coat and his arms are linked with his fellow protestors, not simply hanging down as is the case with the poster.

This leads me to conclude that this image is not taken from a photograph of Heschel himself, unless it was taken from a later photograph. (Heschel passed away well before the creation of this poster, in 1972. This poster was made in 2012.)

When I saw the poster for the first time, I assumed it was of Heschel. However, I was a bit of a specialized audience member – I had already graduated with an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (where Heschel worked himself!) and was therefore accustomed to seeing pictures of him in hallways. I was also already familiar with the quote and Heschel’s involvement in the Selma-Montgomery march.

But for those people not already-in-the-know about the historical background of the quote, the poster may be less clearly about a rabbi named Heschel (the attribution of the quote is quite small on the poster itself).

What is clear on the photo is that the quote is important, and furthermore, that the quote is a quote. The quotation marks are quite large – larger and bolder, in fact, than any of the words themselves! The important thing is that this is a historical quote, that someone from the Jewish community (perhaps it doesn’t even matter who, it matters that it was someone) said this and was therefore at the march in Selma. The graphic of the partial man marching looks old-fashioned (indeed, old-fashioned enough to make me initially think it was an altered photo of Heschel!), also signaling to the viewer the importance of the past-tense-ness of the poster. However, cyan and magenta lines rocket off the borders of the graphic of the man and of the quote, shattering the clean lines of image and making it almost difficult to stare at for too long a period. While this certainly doesn’t make the poster look vintage or of the 1960s, it still doesn’t look quite modern, either. The effect is alluring yet jarring as the temporal setting of the photo is destabilized and the poster becomes hard to look at for a sustained period of time – like a Magic Eye that your eyes just won’t “lock onto” correctly. This happened in our community’s past, the poster seems to whisper (remember, the poster is intended for a primarily Jewish audience) and it can happen again, as well.

I don’t know if any of my 7th-grade Sunday School students took the time to look and reflect on the poster as they passed by it on their way from the sanctuary to the classroom. I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that I never incorporated the poster into any of my lesson plans. However, I noticed it, and it had a transformational effect on me, at least – it helped me choose the topic of my dissertation.

Maria Carson is a Dissertation Fellow at the Humanities Center at Syracuse University. She is a PhD Candidate in the Religion department at Syracuse University, working on her dissertation about the life, thought, and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Her work blends together cultural studies, affect theory, and Jewish thought and cultural studies. She has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a B.A. in Religious Studies from DePaul University, and a B.F.A. in Theatre Management from The Theatre School at DePaul University.


History’s Fiction Problem: “Selma” and the Value of Fictionalized History

In a recent piece for SalonAndrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg take aim at both Selma, the newly released film about the activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through Selma, they critique Hollywood more broadly for its lack of anything truly meaningful to say about history.  In the process, they also dismiss seemingly all (or at least most) historical fiction. They suggest that there is a measure of historical truth that historical fiction can obtain—but only if it remains firmly ensconced in the responsible, well-trained hands of those housed in the discipline of history.  Fiction’s tendencies to romanticize and to provide narrative closure, they seem to suggest, works against a nuanced appreciation of history.

Skepticism from trained historians is nothing new; historical fiction has increasingly earned the ire of many historians.  Such critiques almost invariably revolve around questions of “accuracy,” as historians ruthlessly pick apart the novels, films, and television series for every incident that is not “how it really was.”  Burstein and Isenberg voice a common desire among many of those who study history, for they suggest that in films “romantic truthiness supplants history.”

Such a critique overlooks so much of the richness and complexity that fiction, in film, in television, in novels, in poetry can offer to readers trained to be able to see it.  True, there are many flaws in these expressions of history, but isn’t it time to stop pretending that they don’t have any historical value, or that they don’t have a particular vision of the truth to offer?  Isn’t it more productive to study the ways in which these texts work, to look at conventions of narrative and other aesthetic considerations, to situate them in their political moments—not just to find out what they say about their present moment, but about how that moment understands history?  Work like Burstein’s and Isenberg’s poses the danger of foreclosing on any possibility of appreciating and studying these texts in all of their complexity, and shores up the already incredibly tenuous distinction between fiction and truth as if one does not have something to say about the other.

I currently teach a course entitled “Race and Literary Texts.”  Part of my intentions while designing my syllabus was to include fiction that helped to make clear to my students the ways in which history, the accumulated sediments of past actions and processes, continue to intrude on the present.  Utilizing texts ranging from Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy to Richard Wright’s Native Son, my pedagogy emphasizes reading literary texts as theoretical texts. We take them seriously as theories of history, and draw out the ways in which they articulate historical visions. This is an incredibly rewarding experience, as we negotiate the ways in which writers, poets, directors, and studios grapple with the how to engage with the intractable problems posed by the past.

For our first close reading activity, we read the vexing poem “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland.  I love and hate this poem, for it represents so much of what I will attempt to convey to my students this semester.  In this poem, the speaker observes a tennis match between a white European and a young black woman from Alabama, secretly hoping that the former will win. Through the match, he wrestles with the intractable nature of history, of momentous (and, to the speaker at least, cataclysmic) social change.  While I condemn the poem’s obvious racism and white paranoia, I can’t help but acknowledge the ways in which it seeks to articulate a theory of history, to wrench a measure of intelligibility out of the chaos and terror of historical change (to riff slightly on Philip Toynbee’s famous statement about good writers grappling against the intractableness of modern English).  When the speaker says:

There are moments when history

passes you so close

you can smell its breath,

you can reach your hand out

and touch it on its flank

one can almost feel him grappling with the idea of history as experience, of the individual come face to face with the terrifying nearness of forces over which he has no control.  The line breaks struggle formally to come to terms with the effects of history, with the sense that a moment is simultaneously passing and has already passed.  Indeed, by the end of the poem he seems to have done so: the last phrase “we were changed” echoes like the closing of some door. The mantra forms a powerful reminder not only of the contradictions of history–as both ongoing process and recollection of the past–but also of the exclusionary power of “we.”  This is in many ways an elegy for white hegemony, and while I find it personally repugnant, I acknowledge that it does offer truth about history—even if it’s one with which we vehemently disagree.

Fiction, whether in the form of the printed word or the moving image, can offer us meaningful and powerful insights into the workings of history.  As Brittney Cooper puts it so forcefully in her own Salon take on the question of historical storytelling in Selma:  “being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth.  Read any Toni Morrison novel and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity.”  To continue to overlook these texts’ engagements with the past is to do both the texts and us a grave disservice. This shouldn’t stop us from critiquing those theories of history that continue to marginalize and disenfranchise those who have long been excluded from power, of course.  But it’s time that, instead of constantly critiquing and wringing our hands, we move into doing something more interesting and more fruitful: to engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced exploration of the relationship between fiction and history.


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.